Government takes control of earthquake-prone building decisions from local councils

The new framework divides New Zealand into three earthquake categories.

Central government has taken control of earthquake-prone building regulation, with new legislation that will compel building owners to fix or demolish dangerous structures within set timeframes.

The Earthquake-prone Buildings Amendment Act came into effect on July 1, and was launched this morning by Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith in Wellington's St Mary of the Angels church, which re-opened in April after four years of restoration to bring it up to code.

The new act removes local councils' requirements to have their own individual policies, and create a single national policy framework. It divides New Zealand into three earthquake categories, with timeframes for building assessment and repair dependent on the perceived seismic risk.

In high-risk areas, such as Wellington, Christchurch, and Napier, buildings must be assessed within five years and upgraded within 15 years; in medium-risk places such as Hamilton, Nelson and Invercargill, that lengthens to 10 and 25 years respectively, and in low-risk Auckland and Dunedin, it is 15 and 35 years.

"The government is trying to carefully balance the issues of cost, the issues of heritage as well as the issues of safety," Smith said. "It does involve a difficult trade-off, but what we think is that this regime places it at a rate at which the engineering sector is able to support the upgrades. We want the greatest effort going into the likes of Wellington where risks are highest, we are prepared to give more time in areas like Dunedin and Auckland where the risk is a lot less."

Schools, hospitals and emergency buildings must be assessed and upgraded in half the time, while registered heritage buildings and those deemed low risk and low use can receive a 10-year extension. The government is prioritising unreinforced masonry facades and parapets in high traffic areas, Smith said, due to the loss of life in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake from these features, and has, alongside local councils and building owners, invested between $9 million and $10 million dollars in that.

Smith said it was the "most ambitious seismic regulatory regime anywhere in the world" due to the regulation of existing buildings. "These new laws involve an uncomfortable and inevitable trade-off between safety and cost but will save hundreds of lives in future quakes when fully implemented."